DATE July 18, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dexter Filkins of The New York Times talks about the
situation in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Iraq's three main groups, the Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds are
killing each other with greater ferocity than ever, writes my guest Dexter
Filkins. Yesterday, in a town that's at the center of Sunni-Shiite conflict,
Sunni-Arab gunmen dressed as Iraqi security forces killed at least 50
civilians in a mostly Shiite market.
Filkins is a Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times and has been
covering Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Earlier this month, he reported
from Ramadi, which he says is now the epicenter of the insurgency and the
deadliest place for US soldiers. Yesterday I spoke with Dexter Filkins about
what he's seen lately in Iraq. He was in the US for an extended weekend to
attend a wedding.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
The, you know, the group Hezbollah is a Shiite-Muslim group and Muqtada
al-Sadr who's leading an insurgency in Iraq is Shiite as well. Is there any
connection, do you think, between al-Sadr and Hezbollah? I will say that
Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement in which he said that Iraqis would not sit
by with folded hands before the creep of Zionism. And this was a statement in
support of Hezbollah.
Mr. DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah. There are connections. There's a big connection
and then there's sort of smaller ones. I mean, you could draw a line as
people have done. They call it the Shia Crescent, running from Lebanon to
Iraq to Iran. And Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite. Iraq is majority. The
Shiites in Lebanon are pretty close to 50 percent if not more. And so, that's
the sort of larger connection. I mean, the Shiites are a minority in the
Islamic world. But in that area, they constitute pretty close to a majority.
So in that sense, they are linked. So--and they have this feeling of
solidarity which you saw when Muqtada on Friday delivered a statement saying
that he supported Hezbollah. But the connections are actually, they're
actually closer than that. Muqtada's family, the Sadr family, is basically of
Lebanese origin. And, for example, his uncle Musa al-Sadr, I believe it's his
uncle, was a very prominent cleric in Lebanon, who was ultimately killed. He
was--in a very mysterious way when he went to Libya some years ago. But
there's a--so there's a very, very close connection. And it's actually--you
know, it's a religious kind of tune, but also in his case, it's a connection
GROSS: What about a connection in philosophy? How much of that do they
Mr. FILKINS: They share quite a bit. They share quite a bit. I mean, they
share--I mean, they, as you can see with the statements like `creeping
Zionism,' they share this kind of, you know, very, very intense anti-Israeli
feeling. But there's also--I should say, there's a feeling--and authors of
books that have just come out have called this the Shia Revival. And so in
historical terms, you have the Shia Islam. It's a minority within Islam, and
it's always been kind of a downtrodden group and the oppressed group. It's
about 10 or 15 percent of the Islamic world.
And with the rise of Iran, with the coming to power in Iraq of a
democratically elected Shiite majority and then the--really the rise of
Hezbollah, what you're seeing is this, is really, you're seeing the Shia
Revival right before our eyes. And so it's been a fascinating thing to watch
just in the past week or so because you've had these Arab governments that are
predominantly Sunni and really remarkably criticized Hezbollah for firing
missiles into Israel. Now that's practically unheard of. I mean, in the
past, all these governments would kind of applaud one another for doing these
sorts of things. And in this case, they seem to be more concerned about
Hezbollah than they are about Israel, which is really remarkable.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you point out that some of these Arab governments like
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan are primarily Sunni. Now, Iran is primarily
Shiite, and Iran is a sponsor of Hezbollah. Is Iran helping to sponsor
Muqtada al-Sadr and his insurgency in Iraq?
Mr. FILKINS: Yes. Short answer, yes. In many ways, many which are hard to
discern, but they're not, I remember when Muqtada al-Sadr led the big uprising
in 2004 against the Americans. And the uprising was put down, Sadr was
allowed to kind of walk away with most of the Mahdi Army that was still
surviving. But I remember I was in Najaf during the fighting, and when the
fighting was over, I found a cemetery there. It was a makeshift cemetery
where the Mahdi Army, where Muqtada's army had buried their dead. And there
were--there actually were little grave markers, pieces of papers that were
stuck in bottles. And people in the graveyard, people in that cemetery were
from Iran. And it said, you know, Ali Mohammed, age 29, Tehran.
But, yes, the degree and the extent to which the Iranian government, or parts
of the Iranian government, support the Mahdi Army is not precisely known. But
I think the--it's pretty extensive. That's important.
GROSS: Now, you reported in Monday's New York Times that there are Sunnis now
in Iraq, Sunni Muslims, who want the US to remain for a while in Iraq to
protect them from the Shiite militias. And what's amazing about this is that,
you know, that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni or is a Sunni Muslim. And the
Sunnis were really opposed to the United States because when the US overthrew
Saddam Hussein, a lot of the Sunnis who had been in power lost their power.
They lost their jobs. And for the Sunnis now to want Americans to stay is
really a big change. Why do they want that?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, it is really remarkable when you think about it. I mean,
the United States has been fighting the Sunni insurgency for three and a half
years, 2500 soldiers dead, you know, thousands wounded. And what you're
beginning to see is the Sunni, it's mostly the sort of leadership level at
this point. And there's no great love for the Americans. But what you're
beginning to see is that they realize--they are coming to realize that only
the Americans can protect them from the Shiite majority. And as the sectarian
problems in that country have gotten worse, they've started to kind of
re-examine--they've started to re-examine everything that they've been saying
and doing for the past three and a half years. And so now you have the vice
president, Tariq Hashimi, he's a Sunni. He's a former officer in Saddam's
army, and I asked him point-blank, `Do you want the Americans to leave?' And
he said, in so many words, `Not so fast.'
GROSS: There's a couple of agreements that you wrote about in the paper
between Sunnis and Shias, where the Sunni Muslims are saying that unless
Shias, who come to raid homes or mosques, have American troops with them, that
they'll just be shot at. Would you explain this because I find this
Mr. FILKINS: It is confusing, but it's really, it's important, and it's
remarkable. The security forces, whether it's the police or the army or
anything else in Iraq, it's overwhelmingly Shiite. And as we've seen in the
past year, the Shiite security services have been committing pretty widespread
and pretty horrific atrocities against the Sunni population. And so what's
happened in--what's happened in the past--you know, this has happened over the
past six months--is that the Sunnis have said, `We will allow the Iraqi
government, i.e. the Shiite forces, to search our homes or our mosques, but
we'll only do it if they--we'll only allow that if there are American soldiers
present because when American soldiers are present, then we don't have people
taken away and they're not shot in the back of the head and they're not
tortured. We don't find them in, you know, ditches two days later.'
And I just--there's a perfect anecdote to illustrate that. I was sitting in
the office of Omar Jibouri who runs the--he runs a human rights department of
a Sunni political party, and I remember talking to him and he--families come
to him every day, Sunni families, and they say, `My son was taken away by, you
know, by the Iraqi police a week ago. We've never heard from him.' Or `My--we
found--they took my son away, and we found him, you know, shot through the
head in a field a few days later.'
And every day the families come to his office. And I went and saw him the
other day, and he said to me, `We are relieved. We are overjoyed when our
people are taken prisoner by the Americans or if they are arrested by the
Americans because then we know that they're going to survive. What usually
happens is that they're taken prisoner, when they're taken prisoner or they're
arrested by the police forces, the Iraqi police forces, the Iraqi army, we
don't know that. We know that they'll be tortured. We know that they'll be
killed in custody. But when the Americans take them, we can, you know,
breathe a sigh of relief.'
So that's just a measure of why and how the Sunni political leaders are
coming, are moving closer to the Americans. And so, again, this is part of
that pretty remarkable shift that we're seeing which is after spending three
and a half years fighting an insurgency, which, of course, is still going on.
There's a recognition which is occurring among the Sunnis that their bigger
enemy is not the United States, but it's the Shiites in their own country.
And that they're turning to the United States to protect them. And so this is
a perfect example of that. They're actually insisting that American forces
accompany the Shiites whenever they go into Sunni neighborhoods. It's
remarkable. It's complicated, but it's pretty fascinating.
GROSS: But, in the meantime, the Shiite Muslims, who have more power since
the American invasion, there's a Shiite insurgency against the US led by
Muqtada al-Sadr. So does he just impose the US as like an imperialist
colonizing force or like why is there a Shiite insurgency against the US
considering that the Shiites have more power than they did under Saddam
Mr. FILKINS: That's a very good question. Muqtada al-Sadr is the most
complicated and probably nefarious character in Iraq. He operates at many
different levels, and he has several agendas. And he is in politics, and he's
in the streets, and he has men with guns. And he's pursuing his agenda on so
many different levels that it's very, very complicated. So, Muqtada al-Sadr,
yes, every Friday in all the Sadr mosques all around Baghdad and southern
Iraq, they preach against the American occupation and the Americans are evil
and they support the Zionist, etc. etc. But at the same time, Muqtada
al-Sadr has 30 seats in the parliament which is more or as many as any other
party in the entire government in all of parliament. And he's part of the
coalition, the Shiite coalition that the Americans support. So he is
simultaneously fighting against the Americans, and his people in parliament
are essentially working with the Americans. And so it's really, really a
complicated, very, very complicated game.
If--you know, the Americans have struggled for three and a half years on what
to do about Muqtada al-Sadr. He is suspected--strongly suspected of ordering
the murder of a very prominent ayatollah back in 2003. There's a warrant for
his arrest, which has not been executed. You know, he's led uprisings in 2004
against the Americans wherein--which they killed, the Americans killed
hundreds of members of the Mahdi Army but basically let him go away and let
him survive. And so there's been this constant debate within the American
military and within the American Embassy there about what to do about this
guy. And because he's very, very strong, he has this enormous following all
across Iraq. And so, you know, they frankly have asked themselves the
question, is he more dangerous dead or is he more dangerous alive? And, I
think, the answer has been, you know, for the past three years, it would be
worse if we killed him. So, this is what they get. They're dealing with a
really complicated, a really complicated guy who's, you know, opposing
American interest practically everywhere there.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins, Baghdad correspondent for The New York
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest Dexter Filkins has been covering Iraq for The New York Times
since 2003. Lately, he's been writing about the conflict between Sunni and
Shia Muslims in Iraq.
Well, getting back to this idea that the Sunni Muslims now feel that they need
the United States to remain in Iraq longer to protect them against the Shia,
the Shia Muslims. So, does this mean the US has one less group attacking it
Mr. FILKINS: Not yet. I mean, I just came from Anbar Province, which is in
the west, and that's all, it's 99 percent Sunni. And that's where most of the
American soldiers are dying now. About one a day is being killed in Anbar.
And that insurgency is still raging. So I think what you're seeing, at least
what we're seeing in Iraq is that, is that that change, kind of an
intellectual change, has been articulated by the Sunni leadership. But it
hasn't really--it hasn't trickled down yet into the insurgency. And so the
insurgency is still going strong. I think there's a hope, and there's been a
hope for many months now that some of these Sunni insurgent groups could be
kind of dealt with, and they could be negotiated with and maybe deals could be
struck. But that hasn't happened yet.
GROSS: Well, now that some of the Sunni leadership has decided it wants the
United States to stay longer...
Mr. FILKINS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...to protect the Sunnis from the Shiites, how does this affect the US
goal of starting to pull out troops from Iraq?
Mr. FILKINS: It makes things very, very complicated. The United States has,
for the past three years, been training an Iraqi army and Iraqi police forces,
which now number, I think, more than 200,000. They're overwhelmingly Shiite.
And the Americans have tried to make it a kind of a balanced military with
Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites. But it hasn't really--that hasn't really taken
hold. It's seen as and it acts primarily as a Shiite police force in those
cities and as a Shiite army. And so, as long as that is the case, and as long
as the Sunnis see them as a threat, I think, there's not going to be the kind
of stability that will be in the country that would allow the Americans to
And so I think it's become very, very difficult for the United States. I
mean, as you've seen the Bush administration has been trying and has been
talking about reducing the number of American forces in that country for a
while--I mean, since the beginning. But even in the past six months, there's
been a lot of talk that the level of American forces would go down to say
around 100,000 from there current level of about 130,000 by the end of the
year. That--every time they try to do that or they try to reduce the number
of American forces on the streets, you see these, you see basically the chaos
result. And it's mostly now chaos. It's fighting between Sunnis and Shiites,
certainly in a place like Baghdad.
And so the larger issue is the sectarian problems, Sunni-Shiite problems,
which is more and more out of control. And the Americans have decided, I
think, that they can't just walk away from that. They've got to try to
stabilize the situation before they can reduce the number of troops there.
GROSS: Every time I talk to you I say, `So, do you think there's going to be
a civil war?' So, why don't I ask you again?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think it is a civil war. How could you call it
anything other than that? You know, civil wars take many forms. But, I mean,
all you have to do is go down to the morgue in Baghdad where, I don't know, I
think last month, there were 2,000 bodies in the morgue.
I'll give you an anecdote. I was sitting with Omar Jibouri in his office, I
mentioned him previously. He runs the human rights office for the Sunni
political party, and he has this photo album, many, many pages growing every
day, of young Sunni males who have been killed by the Shiite security forces.
And it's just this horrific catalogue, you know, growing in size every day.
But, you know, it goes from one page to the next. And these people were
burned with acid, these people were found machine-gunned in a ditch, these
people had electric drill marks all up and down their legs. And it's one page
after another. And, again, every day, I don't know what--I've heard estimates
that, you know, maybe, just in Baghdad alone, there's 50 people a day are
killed in sectarian violence. Certainly, by almost any definition, that's a
GROSS: You know some people say that the US invasion of Iraq actually
strengthened Iran because, you know, Iran and Iraq were--have been enemies.
They've fought a long war against each other. And with Saddam Hussein gone
and Iraq in chaos, Iran is in a more powerful position, is what a lot of
people say. So, I'm wondering if you think that that is, in fact, what's
happened and how that's affecting the whole conflict that you say exists now
between Sunnis and Shia Muslims?
Mr. FILKINS: The Iranian government definitely benefited from the fall of
Saddam Hussein. He was their main rival. They were happy to see him go. A
majority Shiite government was elected in Iraq, which they're very, very close
to and which they have a lot of influence over. And at the same time--I mean,
this isn't quite related, but now you have oil at $75 a barrel, and so they
find themselves very, very rich suddenly. And their biggest rival, Saddam
Hussein, is out of the picture. And they have a government that they're very,
very close to in Iraq. So, in that sense, yes. They benefited very much from
all of this.
GROSS: Are there any other dots that you see connecting the chaos in Iraq
with the conflict in the Middle East?
Mr. FILKINS: I think the hope at the time of the American invasion was that
a Democratic Iraq or an Iraq without Saddam Hussein would be a source of peace
and stability and possibly democracy. And it's none of those things. It's
democratic, but it's anarchic. It's drawing jihadists to it from all over the
Muslim world. It hasn't spilled over yet into--it hasn't literally spilled
over into its neighbors but--yet, but there certainly--it's certainly making a
lot of the leaders in that region very, very nervous. And it's not--I mean, I
think the original thought was they're going to be nervous because there's
been a democracy that has suddenly bloomed there. And, yes, that has been one
of the things that has made the leaders in that area nervous. But what really
makes them nervous is all the violence and chaos.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins is the Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the cosmic scene. Kevin Whitehead reviews a new re-issue
of a Duke Ellington recording from 1958. And more with Dexter Filkins on the
disintegrating situation in Iraq.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking with Dexter Filkins who has reported from Iraq for The New York
Times since the invasion in 2003. Earlier this month, he reported from
Ramadi, which is at the epicenter of the insurgency. I spoke with Filkins
yesterday near the end of his brief trip to the States to attend a wedding.
Each time you're on the show talking about Iraq, I always ask you about what
categorizes this last stay there because, you know, you've said before on the
show that every few months that you're in Iraq, each extended visit there, is
characterized by another mood or another kind of overarching experience. So,
how would you categorize your last few months or year in Iraq?
Mr. FILKINS: The country is disintegrating. I think, it's a horrible thing
to witness. But the evidence for it is overwhelming. It's not just the
insurgency or the car bombs or that kind of violence that we've seen so much
of for three years. It's not just the sectarian killings that grow and grow
every day. It's anarchy. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, it's
just anarchy. It's like the worst people in the country have the most power.
And it's insurgents, it's criminals, it's kidnapping gangs, it's--some of whom
are often the same people. Neighborhoods are coming apart. Neighborhoods
that were mixed Christian, Sunni, Shia, for hundreds and hundreds of years are
coming apart. There's refugees on each side of the city now. It's just a
horrible thing to see. I don't know, honestly, what will turn it around.
GROSS: Well, you know, you had been kind of optimistic about the elections
when they happened. And you've been writing about the newly elected
government in Iraq. And you had one article that was about someone you
describe as the governor with 29 lives. And why don't you explain why he had
Mr. FILKINS: This is Maamoon Sami al-Rasheed, the governor of Anbar
Province, better known as Governor Maamoon. And he has survived--so far, I
haven't updated it in the last few days, but he has survived 29 assassination
attempts. He has been governor for just about a year. And they've tried to
car-bomb him, they've tried to mortar him, they've tried to shoot him, suicide
bombings. Unbelievable, how many times. And he's a tough guy. And he keeps
going. But it's a measure--I mean, he's in Anbar Province, he's in Ramadi.
Ramadi is destroyed. He's really kind of the last man standing in that
government. That's what it look like on most days. And he kind of survives
with the protection of the Americans. But it's just a--it's a measure of
how--it's certainly a measure of how rough it is in that place.
GROSS: OK. So 29 assassination attempts against this one governor. You say
his predecessor was kidnapped and killed. His deputy was shot to death. The
chair of the provincial council was killed. The governor's secretary was
beheaded. And there was a government meeting that--I think you probably
attended this one--only six of 39 senior officials showed up. That there were
more Marines guarding the meeting than there were Iraqis attending it because
people are just afraid to go.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: So, theoretically, there's a democratically elected government, but it
sounds like, in a lot of ways, the government doesn't really exist.
Mr. FILKINS: No. I mean, that's Anbar Province in the west. And that's
just full-scale war. It's fought every day. Again, it's where most of the
Americans are dying now.
Mr. FILKINS: There's not much of a government there. I mean, they try.
They try to keep it going, but it's, you know, Governor Maamoon, he's a
symbol. But if you could see the building where he works, it's a fortress.
It's sandbagged. There's Marines on top of it guarding it. It's attacked
sometimes by as many as 100 insurgents. That's not much of a government. Not
GROSS: Well, you know, when we were talking about the anarchy in Baghdad, on
Saturday, 60 masked gunmen abducted more than 30 people at a meeting in the
country's top sports administrators and kidnapped the president of the
National Olympic Committee. And that's kind of amazing.
Mr. FILKINS: It is amazing. It is. I mean, you have these gigantic
kidnappings where, as in this case, you'll have 30 and 40 people kidnapped at
once by, you know, 40 or 50 gunmen. And try--just imagine that. I mean, just
picture it, what it looks like. That many kidnappers with guns often wearing
police uniforms or army uniforms, it's just a measure of how completely out of
control things are there. And, you know, I should say that there's a, the
American military and the Iraqi security forces have been making a pretty
concerted effort to bring that chaos under control, particularly in Baghdad.
It just hasn't worked.
GROSS: Well, you've been reporting from Ramadi, which you describe as the
epicenter of the insurgency. How have you--how were you getting around in a
place that was so unsafe?
Mr. FILKINS: I was getting around mostly in humvees, armored, very armored
humvees with the Marines. And I was flying around in some helicopters. But,
pretty amazing, we would drive around in humvees. And on one patrol that I
went on, we drove to within a couple of feet of a homemade bomb, what they
call an IED, right there in the street. It was a pipe. It's about two feet
long, and there was a wire coming out of it, and the wire went into the
pavement. We just drove right up to it. And, you know, the streets of Ramadi
are pretty dirty and there's trash and there's pipes and there's wires and
stuff laying around anyway. And how this, you know, 21-year-old lance
corporal who spotted it, how he spotted it, I don't know. That was one
patrol. On another patrol at night, we came across three different IEDs. And
it's really scary at night because you really can't, there's no electricity
there. I mean, I think there's two hours a day or something in Ramadi. So at
night, it's completely--the streets are completely black. And I think we saw
three IEDs. They thought they saw a suicide bomber that was in a car that was
kind of checking us out. And a third patrol that we went on, we were just
getting a ride from one building to the next, and the humvee dropped us off, a
photographer and I, at the Government Center, which is in the middle of town.
Took off, drove about 100 yards down the road and hit a bomb. No one was
killed, fortunately, in that. And I remember the soldier, the Marine came by,
the guy from Brooklyn, he's like 21 years old, and I said, `God, how did that
feel?' And he kind of laughed, and he said, `Well, it's my fifth one.'
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins, a Baghdad correspondent for The New York
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. He's been covering Iraq for The New York
Times since 2003.
You wrote an article about the headquarters for the American troops in Ramadi,
which, again, is the central part of the insurgency. And the article was
headlined "Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles." I mean, you see the word
`fetid' in a headline, you know, this isn't going to be good. Can you
describe the conditions that the American troops are living in there?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I should say, you know, they're a tough bunch of guys.
So, and they don't complain very much. But it's pretty, it's pretty shocking.
I mean, the first thing, it's just a building in the middle of the city, and
about a half mile at least or a mile in each direction, everything is
destroyed. All the buildings are destroyed. And there's been so much
fighting over the past couple of years. So, imagine that. Just block after
block of ruins.
And there's the one, Government Center, still standing in the middle of town.
It's surrounded by sandbags. There's Marines on the roof with guns. And so
it's a fortress. I mean, it's like a sort of Saturday afternoon movie. It's
like "The French Foreign Legion." You know, they're kind of, you know, holding
the fort in the middle of this wreckage. And so inside, you know, there's
no--there's really no toilets to speak of. They defecate in bags which they
take outside, and they burn them. They actually have a special bag. It's
called a `lag bag' that they have to defecate into and take it outside where
it's burned. When the moment that you walk out the door, you have to run
because there's a threat of snipers. There's one courtyard over to the side
where you can actually stand where a sniper wouldn't--from any other building
wouldn't have a view. Every other place where you walk outside, you've got to
run because you can be hit by a sniper.
You know, they sleep four to a room. Sometimes more. Sometimes eight to a
room. There's really not much in the way of showers. And these guys, the
Marines go in, and most of them are 19, 20 years old. They're tough guys.
The food is, you know, these MREs which is just tasteless stuff. They go in
for these rotations that are into the Government Center which are about 10
days each. And it's really pretty, pretty, pretty rough. You know, they get
to rotate out. But so, for 10 days, you're kind of living like this, and
you're not showering, and they're getting shot at all the time. And there's
these big firefights. I mean, we were there one night, and there was a
two-hour firefight going on. So, that's kind of what--that's what they're
enduring there. And on top of all of that, it's in the middle of, you know,
it's in the middle of the desert. It's 120 degrees. It's 100 degrees at
midnight. It's really, really hard.
GROSS: So, who's shooting at them?
Mr. FILKINS: That's--I didn't get to walk out and interview any of them,
GROSS: I don't mean by name. What I mean, are they Sunni or Shiite?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, in Anbar, they're Sunni, yes. They're Sunni insurgents.
I think they're more--the trickier question is kind of who are they? Are they
from Ramadi? Are they the locals? Or are they guys who've come from outside
the city or even, you know, outside the country? And it's really hard, it's
really hard to answer that. I mean, it's hard, in part, because as an
American reporter, I can't walk out into the neighborhood and ask around
safely. I had some contact with the Iraqis who are living there.
But I'll just share one moment that I had with the Marines, which was really,
really, it was fascinating. It was pretty tense, but I learned a lot, I
think. We were just on a patrol, and I remember my driver, his name was--he
was about 21 years old, I think. He was Lance Corporal Sean Patton, and he
was the--he said that General Patton was his, from World War II, was his
great, great uncle. But I was cruising around with Corporal Patton, and as we
drove through the streets and people--where the Iraqis were kind of standing
around, they didn't recoil in fear when the Americans kind of rolled down the
street. I mean--and for a city which is as incredibly violent and torn by
fighting as that one, I found that surprising. They've tried to rethink the
way they deal with the population. They exercise a lot of restraint, more
than they used to.
And so, as I said, as you rolled down the street, if people were kind of
sitting in chairs or kind of chatting or kids were playing games, they more or
less continued to that. They didn't all start running in their houses. And
they occasionally tossed soccer balls out to the kids. And so all the kids
were kind of lining up and asking for soccer balls. And so it wasn't that
chilling of a scene. It wasn't what I expected. And then this moment came
where we'd been cruising around this neighborhood for about, I don't know, for
about a half an hour. And we turned down one street, and suddenly everybody
disappeared. And there had been about 50 people in the street. And within
two minutes everyone was gone.
And I remember we stopped in the middle of the intersection, and Lance
Corporal Patton said, `We're going to get hit. They're going to hit us.' And
as I talked to him about it, he said, `Look'--I mean, the insurgents live
among the population. And often when the insurgents have planted a bomb in
the street or if they're going to attack an American patrol, they tell the
civilians ahead of time. And so they say, `Look, when you see a patrol coming
down and it goes into the intersection here, we're going to hit the button on
an IED. Get your kids out of there.'
And so everybody cleared out, and we sat in the intersection, and basically
waited for these guys to hit us. And they didn't. And then we circled out of
the neighborhood, and we came back about five minutes later, everybody was
back. Everybody had come into the streets. And as soon as the Americans
rolled in, pretty slowly, everybody left again. And so we sat in the
intersection. We waited. And he said, `We're going to get hit, we're going
to get hit.' And we didn't get hit. So, finally, we drove off.
And that was the end of--that was the end of our day. And it's so hard
because you're sitting in, like, I had a helmet on and a flack jacket, and I
was in the backseat of a humvee which has armored windows. Everything about
it is armored. The doors weigh about 500 pounds each. You can't hear very
well. You don't have a lot of visibility. You know, you don't really know
what's going on anyway. And so you're kind of looking around, and stuff is
happening. You know, you want to just get out of the humvee and ask people
what's going on, but you can't really do that.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you something on a kind of lighter side. You went to
Fort Irwin, California. You wrote about this.
Mr. FILKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: To see how the military has changed, how it teaches troops to deal
with Iraq. And how to defeat a guerrilla insurgency. And what you found
there is that there's a lot of like actors and stunt men from Hollywood who
are doing what?
Mr. FILKINS: It's like--it's pretty amazing. I mean, first, it's this
enormous base, Fort Irwin. I don't know, it's like the size of Rhode Island
or something. And in the middle of the desert, the California desert. And
until pretty recently, it was the scene for these gigantic, you know, kind of
mock tank battles that they would fight between, you know, the American army
and the Soviet army, as they were invading western Europe. And it took a long
time for them to change, but, too long, really. But they have changed. And
they've set up these, basically, what amount to an Iraqi or Afghan villages in
the middle of the desert. And they've filled them with Iraqi Americans who
speak Arabic. And so when the Americans now, the American soldiers, instead
of training for these enormous tank battles, they train for guerrilla warfare.
And so they go into these villages. And there's bombs hidden there. They
can, if one of the American soldiers wanders off, he can be kidnapped and he
can be brought into a secret prison underground.
It's really remarkable. It's very, very, it's very, very real. And they
have--they do have Hollywood stunt people advising them and Hollywood actors.
And the guy who played--Carl Weathers is the guy, the Hollywood actor who is
playing the most prominent role. If you remember, he played Apollo Creed in
the first "Rocky" movie. He is advising the American military on--and the
actors who play the part of the villagers in these mock villages. And he kind
of coaches them on how to like appear to be, you know, more true to life.
GROSS: But he doesn't play a part himself?
Mr. FILKINS: He does not. No.
GROSS: That would be pretty weird, wouldn't it?
Mr. FILKINS: Strange.
GROSS: And you say that at this training base, too, there's fake Al Jazeera
Mr. FILKINS: It's--yeah. Pretty amazing. Well, the videos are actually
real. They--and I'll give you an example. There was--they told us the story
of an American battalion that came into a village, they started getting
attacked and the American commander, I think he called in an air strike and
just wiped out the village. I mean, they didn't, in fact, wipe out the
village. But he basically called in an air strike and would have wiped it out
had it been a real village. Killed a lot of civilians, and so the Al Jazeera
network, which is there, rushed to the scene with their cameraman, and they
filmed all the grieving, you know, mothers shouting obscenities about the
United States. And the dead children. And they played the tape, the played
the videotape over and over again on the television network that they've set
That's exactly what happens in Iraq. And those images are beamed all around
the Arab world. And so according to the Americans there, that battalion
commander learned his lesson pretty quickly, that that's not the way that you
GROSS: Meanwhile, as we record this, you're poised to leave and go back to
your work, covering Iraq. You're here very briefly for a wedding. You got
here on Friday, just in time for the start of attacking between Israel and
Hezbollah. Have you spent much of your time in the States just reading the
newspapers and watching the news channels.
Mr. FILKINS: No. No. I'm trying not to pay attention to it. But--I mean,
I've--you know, I've worked in Israel. And I've worked in Lebanon. And I've
worked in Jordan. And I've worked in Syria. So I feel like I know enough.
It's a little bit too much reality.
GROSS: Well, I wish you safe reporting.
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. Thank you, again, for talking with us.
Mr. FILKINS: OK.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times. Our
interview was recorded yesterday toward the end of a brief trip back to the US
to attend a wedding.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews "The Cosmic Scene," a newly reissued 1958
Duke Ellington album.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews reissued 1958 Duke
Ellington album, "The Cosmic Scene"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Starting in the 1930s, Duke Ellington occasionally pulled musicians out of his
big band to spotlight them on various small group sessions. Most of those are
readily available on CD.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews an Ellington small group date from the
1950s that just came out, and about time, too, he says.
(Soundbite of music "Midnight Sun")
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Johnny Mercer's "Midnight Sun" as recorded by a
nine-piece band drawn from the Ellington orchestra. The album "The Cosmic
Scene" billed to Duke Ellington's Spacemen was recorded in 1958 when Sputnik
and Vanguard were all the news.
The Spacemen were Duke's trombone and rhythm sections, including himself on
piano, backing three of his top soloists, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, tenor
saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and flugelhorn player Clark Terry. Terry became
so successful after his eight years with Duke, you can forget what a great
Ellingtonian he made with that plump and juicy sound.
(Soundbite of Jazz music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Clark Terry's corkscrew lines are steeped in bebop, the new
music of the 1940s that made most swing band leaders sound old hat. Some of
them scrambled to keep up. But Ellington trusted his music. That said, he
liked to stay a little old...(unintelligible)...folding contemporary Latin
beats into his music to accommodate dancers...(unintelligible).
In the '50s when he was rerecording his old classics for LP, he gave some
guest arrangers a shot and plenty of latitude. Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton
devised bebop lines to drape over Duke's classic "Perdido." The featured
soloist on this version was Hamilton, one of the more underappreciated
Ellington greats. He does owe a bit to Benny Goodman, but Jimmy Hamilton is
more heart to accompany that beautiful sound.
(Soundbite of Jazz music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: The soloist Ellington valued most in 1958 was Paul Gonsalves.
This feature here is "Body and Soul," a ballad many tenor saxophonists stay
away from since Coleman Hawkins stamped it for all time. Gonsalves puts his
mark on it by turning it into an up-tempo rave-up, like the marathon solo on
"Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue," that stole the 1956 Newport Festival for his
The new CD of "The Cosmic Scene" is on Mosaic. Yes, the mail order box set
champs now do single discs, too. And it contains an alternate take of "Body
and Soul" almost as good as the master.
The plan of the solo is very similar, right down to well timed quotes from the
"Peanut Vendor" and other tunes.
Trombones don't solo on the album, but listen to them egg on Gonsalves from
the amen corner.
(Soundbite of Jazz music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Duke Ellington's "side project," which favored other folks
tunes over his own, could be a fizzle. But not this time. The band also
launches into a St. Louis blues, Woody Herman's "Early Autumn," a couple of
Ellington blues and another oldie given a bop-ish makeover, Al Jolson's
Reasons to be glad Ellington's Spacemen are back on earth.
(Soundbite of Jazz music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas. And he is a Jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "The
Cosmic Scene" by Duke Ellington's Spacemen, a reissue on the Mosaic label.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.